Cecilia Browning has been living in the United States for more than 20 years, working for much of that time as an official at the House of Sweden and as president of the Swedish Women’s Educational Association. Over the course of two decades, she says she’s been asked about the Swedish Chef probably twice a year. She’s also been asked if she could translate what the Swedish Chef is saying at least 10 times.
“There are three things that people talk to Swedes about pretty uniformly: the Swedish Chef, Abba, and Ikea,” says Michael Moynihan, a Brooklyn-based journalist who is married to a Swede and founded the English language Stockholm Spectator magazine while living in Sweden as an expatriate.
Like me, he found that Swedes (or at least Swedish wives living abroad) get deeply irritated when they are confronted with questions about particleboard furniture, “Dancing Queen,” and the meaning of “Börk börk börk.” Moynihan says everyone who meets his wife approaches her with some variation of the Swedish Chef question, but she has learned to brush it off.
Britt-Marie Forslund, a cultural officer at the Swedish Embassy in Washington D.C., confirmed Moynihan’s observation, saying Ikea is the number one topic of conversation these days, with the other two coming in second and third.
“I’m proud about Abba usually,” Forslund says. “Usually, I think I protest a little about the Swedish Chef, who doesn’t sound Swedish to me.”
This defensiveness is not unique to Swedish expats—when I was living overseas, I found myself reflexively defending a government whose policies I didn’t support because I felt besieged by anti-American critics—but it seems especially pronounced when displayed by Swedes, who are generally portrayed in the media as staid, even-tempered people.
“When Swedes go abroad, they become zealous protectors of the Swedish brand,” Moynihan says. “Something as insignificant as the Swedish Chef is like a slap in the face.”
There is one Swede who embraces the Swedish Chef as a full-fledged compatriot. Lars “Kuprik” Bäckman claims to have been the inspiration for the Muppet and even named his company “Catering Svenska Kocken,” or “Swedish Chef Catering.”
The 67-year-old Swedish chef believes that Jim Henson saw him give a disastrous cooking demonstration during an appearance on an early version of ABC’s Good Morning America way back in 1969. On that show, Bäckman nervously mumbled in a “strange guttural sound of hu-do-do-bu-du-bu-do” that was neither Swedish nor English, similar to the noises of TSC.
Starting in 1976, Bäckman also worked in the dining room on the same 20th Century Fox lot where the Muppets was filmed. He says the dining room manager there, a Dane, believed that Bäckman, with his long red hair, curling mustache, and big sideburns, had to have been Henson’s muse. “He said ‘of course it’s you, you look like him, you act like a goddamn Muppet,’” Bäckman told me.
There’s a problem with Bäckman’s theory, however: He probably wasn’t the inspiration for the Swedish Chef. In 2001, when reports about Bäckman first started appearing in the U.S. press, Muppets head writer Jerry Juhl told muppetcentral.com that they were categorically false.
“I wrote, rehearsed, rewrote, brainstormed, and giggled uncontrollably a thousand times with Jim Henson as we dealt with the Swedish Chef, and I never ONCE heard him mention an actual Swedish chef,” Juhl, who died in 2005, wrote at the time. “I mean, that's a story Jim would have told!”
Then there is the little issue of Bäckman’s accent. Bäckman is from Rättvik, in the Dalarna region of Sweden, one of the places Tomas Riad says the Swedish Chef’s voice couldn’t possibly have come from. The Rättvik accent is one of the very distinct ones that doesn’t have the same low-high-low tonality as the Swedish Chef, Riad told me.
Jerry Juhl, who helped craft the voice, said it did not come from one specific Swede, or from one specific Norwegian for that matter.
“Jim spent a couple of weeks listening to Berlitz [Swedish language] tapes while commuting to get his babble perfected,” he wrote. “Then, much later, I actually WROTE the babble! Heck, I come from good Danish stock, which Jim and I decided made me an expert in Scandenavian [sic] linguistics."
While that seems to clarify the inspiration for the Swedish Chef’s language—it was Jim Henson's Swedish for dummies audio tapes, mixed with Jerry Juhl’s Danish family—there was one final question that bugged me: Do Swedes find the Swedish Chef to be the hysterical character that he is? Or can they only see the bumbling, foreign-sounding cook as an affront?
“I think it’s hilarious and my kids love it too,” House of Sweden’s Cecilia Browning said.
“It’s not for us,” said Tomas Riad, the linguist. “It’s not funny for us to laugh at. It’s funny for other people to laugh at.”
Six years after we first met and after three years living in America, my wife's opinion about the Swedish Chef hasn't changed. "If he's supposed to be Swedish, why is he a chef? That's not stereotypically Swedish," she says. "He doesn't sound Swedish, he doesn't act Swedish, and there's nothing Swedish about him. He's not funny." She says he could be Norwegian, though.